Co-chair of UNA Central Region, Barrie Oxtoby, describes his experience of secondment to the UN and helping to develop the UN System Staff College.
This true story may be of interest to young people considering a career in the international field. The story is personal and today recalls events as they started to happen 25 years ago. After a one-year, full-time secondment to the United Nations, the potential impact of the UN on world peace and development became apparent. The UN Secretary General at the time, Kofi Annan, pioneered a world-wide project that started with a vision of ‘Learning and Training for Peace and Development’ and the project-base would be in Turin, Italy. I was fortunate to be invited to be a member of a small project team and the only recruit then employed in the automotive industry private sector.
The UN poster illustrating the project made a powerful impact. The UN project with the above headline title, covered objectives, focus, audiences, and means of action for a total transformation of culture and operations inside the UN and UN agencies. The imagery was inspirational. Five months later, I arrived in Turin to join a newly-formed UN HQ team with the opportunity to demonstrate the need for the project to become a UN agency in its own right. The permanency of the UN System Staff College was confirmed in 2002 and 20 years later is a thriving concern. Kofi Annan’s hopes for the project have been realised so far but the ‘journey’ will continue for many years ahead.
The career opportunity for graduates was immense. One of the projects in which I was involved was to demonstrate to a range of universities in Europe and the USA on why the UN is an excellent launch pad for a career in international development. Being most impressed by the quality of graduates recruited by the UN as potential specialists and leaders, I well remember being invited to work with a group of 25 newly recruited graduates from universities across the world on why someone from the private sector was working alongside UN professionals and government agencies on planning a UN future. The graduates, all of whom had second or master’s degrees, were impressive in outlook and tested my capability to think strategically. The experience was rewarding.
The environment that UN created by choosing Turin, Italy for the project base was typified by the importance of the bar and restaurant on site. Both locations were always well populated with visitors from the East and West. Informal discussions often stretched well into the night in a social setting. UN people were able to mix with visitors from China, at one geographical extreme and the USA at the other and all countries in between. Friendships and ideas blossomed in such a setting. The perceived neutrality of Italy made it more comfortable for all countries to send their delegates for sharing and learning from each other, and even more importantly, to stay in touch after an initial meeting in Turin.
However, most of my 0project time was spent in the ‘field’ and ‘on the ground’ where the action was actually happening. Working alongside UN agency professionals dealing with humanitarian challenges in a range of countries and as part of a UN team was a most rewarding experience. Admiration for what the UN staff, often in some appalling circumstances, were achieving underlined the importance of what the UN could offer. During my year in the UN, I was fortunate to be engaged in projects located in the UN HQ in New York, France, Italy, Switzerland, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In addition, working on specifically designed workshops with UN Country Teams (multi-agency) from Swaziland, Nepal, and Zambia on bringing about change and development was also at the heart of my responsibilities.
Afghanistan – a crisis country
Perhaps the most challenging and rewarding project was a ‘pilot Crisis Country’ mission to Afghanistan, to develop a plan for creating one million new livelihoods in this war-torn country over two years. Kofi Annan set up an inter-agency project team, in which I was included, whilst a temporary peace prevailed in Afghanistan after 18 years of war. The inter-agency team was briefed personally by the UN Secretary General on his visit to Turin. On arrival in Pakistan initially, the team worked with 80 Afghan leaders from all provinces, UN agency staff based in Afghanistan, NGOs and including the Taliban. I was based initially in Islamabad and then Herat, West Afghanistan. Amongst other agencies, worked with UNICEF in a local hospital’s malnutrition ward for ill-nourished babies.
The project devised a new way of UN working to rescue and re-establish a crisis country which was subsequently researched, planned, and eventually approved by the UN in New York.
On returning home, UNA Church Stretton branch (UNA Shropshire came later) became involved in supporting the project by working in partnership with UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in London with whom we collaborated for over three years. The branch decided to support the skills shortages by funding Afghans in skills training. The much-needed skills were identified as poultry-raising, tin smithing, quilt/blanket making, and carpentry at an average cost of £60.trainee. From our local community, the Branch raised just over £11,000 over three years to fund the training of 180 Afghans. In addition, a new Braille Writing Machine was purchased for a school for the visually impaired in Kabul for students with eyesight damage from bombing in the Afghan capital city.
20 years later, times have changed, methods have improved, and the UN strives for peace and development. The opportunity for future generations to bring about change and development for creating a better world is immense. The United Nations and UNA are in the strongest possible position to lead. The UN Staff College in Turin and a new subsidiary in Bonn is thriving.
Co-Chair, UNA Central Region
Member, UNA Shropshire Branch